This past year, Utah had one of the highest reductions in drug-related deaths in the country — reducing fatalities by 12 percent from 2016. While this is cause to be hopeful that the state can continue to reduce overdose rates, it is also reason to recommit to the problem of opioid abuse in Utah, investing in novel, local solutions that can transform lives and communities.
Utah’s success can be attributed to a host of both systemic and local factors. On a national level, Utah is geographically distanced from the East Coast’s scourge of synthetic drugs, particularly the practice of cutting expensive drugs like heroin with the synthetic filler fentanyl. While Utah is not free of synthetic drugs — with Utahn Aaron Shamo accused of making millions of dollars in such drug sales — in the past, overdose rates in Utah have been more directly attributed to a misuse of prescription drugs.
Knowing this, we recognize the work of local policymakers and private companies aiming to reduce the number of drug-related deaths. The organization Utah Naloxone has distributed more than 60,000 doses of the opioid overdose-reversal drug since July 2015, saving more than 2,300 lives. Additionally, Intermountain Healthcare has worked to limit the number of opioid drugs prescribed as painkillers within Utah. These clear interventions have saved lives. For successful implementation, they also require individualized attention — doctors and social workers giving attentive care to those most at risk in their vicinity.
These localized efforts from committed community members must continue, and policymakers should continue to support this work. Additionally, more thoughtful engagement is needed across sectors to understand what gaps exist and how they can be bridged. New solutions, borne of the expertise of those working in close proximity to this issue, must come forward. Specifically, policymakers would do well to invest in preventive measures to ensure organizations like Naloxone Utah and doctors at Intermountain Healthcare hospitals do not bear the reactive responsibility of ensuring overdoses do not become fatal.
Utah Naloxone founder Jennifer Plumb warns that the synthetic drugs, which are pervasive in the East, may be making their way West — which policymakers can prepare for now. By looking at the innovative work of places like Vermont, New Hampshire and New York City, state officials have the opportunity to implement tested solutions to this endemic problem. It is clear that concerted education programs warning teens about the dangers of synthetic drugs work, as does investigative work that identifies synthetic producers and cuts off the supply to communities.
We are proud of the work of Utah in making this issue a state priority — creating national waves in the process. However, Utah’s slight success rate reveals how much more room for growth exists and how many lives remain at risk.